Continuous Partial Attention

David Rock in Your Brain at Work briefly discusses an elegant conceptualization of a phenomenon all around us: continuous partial attention.

To quote Rock:

Despite thirty years of consistent findings about dual-task interference, many people still try to do several things at once. Workers of the world have been told to multitask for years. Linda Stone, a former VP at Microsoft, coined the term continuous partial attention in 1998. It’s what happens when people’s focus is split, continuously. The effect is constant and intense mental exhaustion. As Stone explains it, “To pay continuous partial attention is to keep a top-level item in focus, and constantly scan the periphery in case something more important emerges.”

(I’ve never read a book before in which a Rock cites a Stone.)

Stone coined this term a decade before smartphones–tools that clearly must exacerbate the phenomenon.

In classrooms, instructors get understandably frustrated when learners engage with devices while listening. Learners do this for a number of reasons. They overestimate their ability to multitask. They overestimate their understanding of the course content (Dunning-Kruger effect). They are bored and use it, like doodling, as a way to focus. Sometimes they make an informed choice about priorities. And so forth. Stone would add another: a nagging feeling that something more interesting might be happening. Better check! Better keep scanning for what’s going on.

Sure, at some level this is a design problem–keep the instruction relevant and interactive and responsive and learners won’t have free cognitive cycles for distraction. But instructional designers don’t get to touch every piece of instruction, not by a long shot, and ID is not a perfect science anyway (and typically working under resource-constrained conditions), so the question becomes: how do we help learners achieve the metacognitive discipline to eschew continuous partial attention?


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